As we say goodbye to the month of April in these winding hours, it seems fitting to take a step back and reflect on what was Lightweight Appreciation Month and look ahead to what may await in the division’s near future. Although the month kicked off with a massive stumble with the most anticipated fight of the month (and arguably of the year) failing to make it through the wires during its route, it was still a very strong month with the other two major main events taking place in a division that finally has some order.
There doesn’t seem to be much debate on whether or not there is more stability in the lightweight division than there was coming into the month now that a new champion has been crowned, but there does seem to be major questions on the legitimacy of Khabib’s status as the undisputed lightweight champion. Conor McGregor went over 500 days without defending the lightweight title and the UFC needed a champion. For those confused as to how Khabib could be considered the undisputed champion after defeating the #11 ranked lightweight and though Tony Ferguson was the interim champion, the matter is actually quite simple. The UFC needed a lightweight champion. The belt was as good as vacant and would become officially vacant once a punch was thrown in the title fight at UFC 223. When you look at the UFC 223 main event as a fight for a title that needed to be vacated in a division that needed a champion, it becomes a matter of the most justifiable match to fill the championship void at this particular event. That match was Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Tony Ferguson. Unfortunately, as we all know, one half of the trusses in this bout collapsed and was unable to make it to the event, at which point the standard for “most justifiable match possible” shifted dramatically. But with a 26-0, highest ranked active/available fighter ready, training complete, and an agreement that allegedly assures his next fight would be for the championship, the standard could still be met.
Fortunately, the UFC were able to find a ranked opponent to contend for the vacant championship, and Khabib would go on to take a one-sided shutout victory in the process. In summary, the division needed a champion, fans were promised a new champion, one half of contenders fell out, a champion was still needed, so a new champion was still crowned. Once a punch was thrown in the UFC 223, the championship slot was given a blank slate and Khabib was ranked high enough to be the man to fill it. Conor McGregor and his supporters may somehow think he is the rightful champion still, but the fact of reality is, he is not. The philosophical proposition, “I think, therefore I am,” does not apply to Conor McGregor. Sure, he may exist as a human being, as the proposition holds, but he does not exist as the lightweight champion anymore, regardless of what he or anyone else thinks. Khabib Nurmagomedov is the UFC lightweight champion. Sorry, but this is not an opinion. It’s a recognized fact that will have implications moving forward that reflect that.
Although Khabib’s status as undisputed champion may be beyond legitimate questioning given the circumstances, that doesn’t mean we are not left with questions at the close of Lightweight Appreciation Month. Kevin Lee’s performance against Edson Barboza was enough to make one question how “The Motown Phenom” would fare against the undefeated Dagestan native. Kevin Lee’s wrestling background, size, and strength are three of the most glaring questions that will be awaiting “The Eagle’s” response.
We came into the month with two intriguing matches for Khabib. And although Kevin Lee is likely not next to face Khabib due to missing weight and being one fight removed from his interim title fight against Tony Ferguson, how a Kevin Lee/Khabib fight would look is just as mysterious as how a Ferguson/Khabib and Conor/McGregor fight would look. And what’s exciting about this landscape is that all three fighters bring completely different styles and match up very differently to Khabib. Many underestimate Kevin Lee’s wrestling, as evident in statements like, “If Kevin Lee could take Tony Ferguson down, Khabib will definitely get him down!”, which completely disrespects and dismisses Kevin Lee’s wrestling background and, more importantly, his dominant wrestling in the Octagon. For years now, it has been Lee’s wrestling that has given him confidence he would defeat Khabib. In the past, he hasn’t just said he would defeat Khabib. Instead, the then burgeoning, greener Lee specifically and confidently claimed that he would outwrestle Khabib. The ease in which he took Tony Ferguson down is not an indictment of Tony Ferguson’s takedown defense as many frame it to be. It is just another indicator of how consistent and dominant Kevin Lee’s wresting is….a man who is such a talented wrestler that he can get a stanky-legged takedown on someone who has, throughout his career, exhibited strong takedown defense. The only way to know if Kevin Lee is right in his belief that he would outwrestle Khabib is to pair the two up, which, to my estimation, is likely only one fight away from happening.
There is a legitimate chance that the man who could give Khabib the most problems was in the other main event from the month in the instant classic in Glendale. But here’s the twist: he has no chance of being next to face Khabib or even face him in the foreseeable future. Justin Gaethje may have come on the losing end for the second straight time after falling short to Dustin Poirier, but he poses a bigger threat to Khabib stylistically than Poirier. If Poirier is next to face Khabib, we can expect him to get ragdolled and dominated like everyone else, sans pre-USADA Tibau. But Gaethje? He wouldn’t be looking to outwrestle Khabib like Lee is expected to. He would instead attempt to use his Division I wrestling credentials to keep the fight upright, which is more likely to happen than not.
Having a Division I pedigree doesn’t assure you will outgrapple your opponent offensively, but it makes it extremely likely that it would function neatly with a defensive mindset and have the fighter avoid being taken down. If this theory holds and Gaethje is able to use his background to avoid getting taken down and free himself from clinches, then what we would be looking at is a contest primarily fought on the feet. I believe Khabib’s striking is grossly underrated and very effective, but even if he outlands Gaethje, Gaethje is an attrition fighter who would look to chop away at Khabib’s legs as he does everyone else. And although Khabib’s striking is underrated, it seems unlikely that he would be able to knock out someone as durable as Gaethje on the feet. Khabib has never been in an attrition battle before. And perhaps more than anyone else, Gaethje has the style and pedigree to introduce Khabib to this world as a very inhospitable host. Unfortunately, Gaethje’s stubborn approach to fighting, which has earned him instant legendary status among fans, has deterred a fight that may very well be the most difficult for Khabib. Who knows what world we would be living in if Gaethje implemented the same forward-marching gladiator approach to fighting but also integrated takedowns as well? Maybe that could have been the difference in both the Alvarez and Poirier fights, where when rocked, he could have used his wrestling to change the pace, buy himself time, and win the fight or the round. We could be looking at 20-0 vs. 26-0 in the same division where the Tony Ferguson, Conor McGregor, and Kevin Lee mega-clashes would also still exist. Instead, we are left looking at Justin Gaethje and his coaching team and wondering what if.
Trevor Wittman has earned a name for himself as respected coach in the sport. But when it comes to Justin Gaethje, there doesn’t seem to be any brainpower at work from the team or Gaethje himself. In the Poirier fight, Gaethje cites his effective leg kicks as the reason he did not go for the takedown. After all, if the leg kicks are working and that is the game plan, to take Poirier down would be counterproductive. The problem with this reasoning is that he is only considering the offensive output and not considering the damage he is taking in return. Poirier outstruck Gaethje 174 to 115 and was ahead on two scorecards because of the damage he was inflicting on Gaethje. So while Gaethje may feel indestructible or somehow exempt from the effects of accumulative damage, the outcomes of the last two fights and the composition of the human brain says differently. If Gaethje wants to put on a great show or fight with his instincts, he can still do that. You don’t have to play a game of Russian roulette with your opponent to do so. If the standup is close and you are taking heavy shots, mix in a takedown attempt at the end of the round. Use faints. Keep them guessing. With all due respect to Trevor Wittman, it makes absolutely no sense not to, at the very least, improvise a plan where wrestling comes into play in a close fight, even if it was not a focal point of the original game plan. To not be aware of your surroundings and be able to combine logic with perception is not the behavior of a championship-level fighter. And when fight IQ fails a fighter, it is up to the coaches to tame the impulses. Fight IQ and coaching both play a significant role in the success of a fighter. It’s not just about talent or even intangibles, such as heart and toughness. There is no greater example of this than Justin Gaethje at this moment in time.
So what’s next in the UFC lightweight division? Well, as we all know, the answer to that depends on one man, and that man is not the lightweight champion. Because of this uncertainty, there are two different tracks to consider for matchmakers: the Conor track and the non-Conor track. Some possible matchups for ranked fighters are the same, whether Conor returns not. Paul Felder, Alex Hernandez, Al Iaquinta, Oliver Aubin-Mercier and the unranked Dan Hooker are likely to generate two pairings between them while one of these names is left to face another prospect or perhaps a rebounding Beneil Dariush. Michael Chieasa vs. Anthony Pettis is going to be rebooked soon. If Pettis wins, he should go on to rematch a rested Edson Barboza at the end of the year or early 2019. The fight that makes the most sense for Justin Gaethje is to face James Vick, which is sure to be yet another crowd-pleasing war between two men who seem to have legitimate animosity between one another. This would give James Vick the caliber name he has been asking for and the fight makes sense in terms of rankings as well. In all facets, that is the fight that makes the most sense. But once we make it to the top of the division, that’s when things get complicated. The following are the two avenues the UFC should go with for the rest of 2018, assuming Tony Ferguson will be sidelined for the remainder of the year and possibly into next year.
Khabib Nurmagomedov © vs. Conor McGregor
Eddie Alvarez vs. Dustin Poirier
Kevin Lee vs. Michael Chiesa (If Michael Chiesa defeats Anthony Pettis)
Kevin Lee vs. Al Iaquinta (If Pettis defeats Michael Chiesa)
Khabib Nurmagomedov © vs. Dustin Poirier
Eddie Alvarez vs. Kevin Lee
The Conor track has the obvious, must-see matchup between Khabib and McGregor and also has Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier finally run it back to determine who will be next in line for a title shot. Kevin Lee, only one fight removed from an interim title shot, will have to show he can make weight and get a less controversial win over Michael Chiesa in another rematch, provided Chisea gets past Anthony Pettis. Putting Alvarez/Poirier and Lee/Chiesa on a rematch-themed Fox/FS1 card makes the most sense.
If Pettis defeats Chiesa, the rematch theme could move forward with Kevin Lee vs. Al Iaquinta, which comes with a great storyline of Kevin Lee trying to avenge a rare loss against the man who just fought for the title and is ranked in the top 10. It also works well with the storyline of Kevin Lee trying to one-up Khabib. Some believe that Kevin performed better against Barboza than Khabib did. Having an opportunity to defeat Khabib’s last two opponents more impressively than Khabib did is a great way to build towards the climax of the story of this fight. It would add a large symbolic component that represents the narrative that Kevin Lee is hot on Khabib’s trail. And this is a story Kevin Lee has claimed to have already scripted out the ending for years ago. For these reasons, a case could be made that Iaquinta should be next for Lee whether Chiesa wins or loses to Pettis. And if Barboza is ready, you could add Barboza/Pettis to this rematch-themed event.
The non-Conor track takes a bit more thinking, but with Lee missing weight and just having a shot at interim gold one fight ago, he should not be ahead of Poirier or Alvarez, even though of the three, he is clearly the biggest threat to Khabib. If we look at Alvarez and Poirier, Alvarez lost the title in devastating fashion and should have to earn a title fight. It’s not as if he was a dominant champion or lost competitively. He should only be next in line if he is the clear #1 contender, which he is not. He only has one win since his loss to Conor, and that was against the same man Poirier has a win against in a five-round, thus more significant fight. Poirier has been more active than Eddie Alvarez and has not yet been provided an opportunity for the title. As a man with 20 UFC fights who has won 7 of his last 8, if Conor and Tony are still on the sidelines, he would make the most sense.
Which track do you believe is more likely to happen, fight fans? Comment below!